Perfecting the Stay Interview

April 2, 2015

Written byBrad Vogel

Perfecting the Stay Interview

Mixmax is a communications platform that brings professional communication & email into the 21st century.

Six questions every manager should ask early and often

Keeping your team happy means understanding what motivates them. At Mixmax, we send every new hire a questionnaire (in an emailed Mixmax Q&A app, of course) to fill out on their first day. Our questionnaire is inspired by the Stay Interview. The idea behind the Stay Interview is to treat it like a preemptive "exit interview" --- a way to learn what motivates your team so you can reinforce those factors. Our questionnaire doesn't just get read once and forgotten about: it's an important conversation piece in every 1--1.

Below are the questions we ask and why we ask them. I've spent eight years at Palm, Apple, and Inkling refining these questions.

"What was your favorite project or feature that you worked on in the past 6 months? What was your least favorite?"

Learn what motivates your employee. What kind of projects do they like working on? Do they like working alone or on a team? Which aspect of the project did they like the most? Was it the rare opportunity to start a project from scratch, an experience of being a project leader, or was it the outcome of winning an award? Set them up for success by putting them on projects that align to their unique desires.

"If you could get rid of any task/project/responsibility currently on your plate, what would it be?"

We all have tasks that we dislike, such as a weekly status report or engineering on-call duty. Listen to the reasons why your employee disliked those tasks. Was the business rationale unclear or was the technical challenge unsatisfactory? Make sure you understand which tasks they value and which they don't value. It will help you make informed decisions to maximize their success.

"How do you like to be recognized?"

We are of course all very different and this is reflected in how we like to be recognized. Some employees enjoy public praise and recognition from peers. Others absolutely hate being congratulated in public. Some employees see job title promotion as the leading indicator of their success. Others are happy with just a silent equity grant or cash bonus. Learn what motivates the employee. It will go a long way in making sure they're happy.

"What would you change about a previous manager? What did you wish they did a little more of or a little less of?"

Asking team members how they interacted with prior managers is a great way to deepen your understanding of their work and communication styles. Have them evaluate the behaviors of their prior manager (without revealing the person's identity of course, as it's not a reflection on the competency of the manager). How did the manager resolve conflicts? How did they communicate priorities? How did they provide feedback and career development? It's also a fantastic way to pick up best practices for helping your team perform at its best.

"What would you like to be doing 5 years from now?"

Figure out where they want to be and optimize them for it. If they want to be CEO, get them involved in all aspects of the company (sales, marketing, product). If they want to be CTO, give them the opportunity to learn all parts of the tech stack. If they want to be externally facing (such as in an evangelist role), get them talking to customers today. Don't accept a dodged answer of "I want to still be working for you". Five years is too long to be working the same job doing the same thing. As a founder, you are responsible for making their career grow.

"What might entice you away from your company?"

This is an admittedly uncomfortable question to ask; but a very important one. You should understand what might lure your employee away before it actually happens (and it will happen someday). Is it their current role or compensation package? Is it to join their dream company? If so, why isn't your team their dream team? This question is at the core of the "stay interview" --- it preempts your employee's desires to move elsewhere.

Being a great founder is not just about innovating and finding product-market fit. Maintaining excellent communication with your team will grow both them and you. The questions above serve that important purpose, and it's never too early to ask them. That's why, at Mixmax, we ask them on day one.

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